Thanksgiving and the American Mind

As we look forward to Thanksgiving celebrations, IREX President Ambassador W. Robert Pearson reminds Congress to appreciate the importance of foreign assistance.  This entry originally appeared in the Voices of IREX blog.

The Thanksgiving holiday in America gives us all a chance to reflect on gratitude, on generosity, and on reaching out to those in need.  As we Americans from every background recall our blessings, we also remember those less fortunate.

Americans’ generosity is key to how we see ourselves.  Official American aid today is $34 billion, the largest of any nation.  The U.S. private sector, including individuals, international NGOs, foundations and corporations, raised close to $16 billion in 2010.   There can be no doubt about the willingness of millions of Americans to give a hand up to those in need, here in the United States and around the globe.  There may be different roles and purposes between private aid and official aid, but the motivating spirit behind these efforts is the same: making a better world for us all.

Public opinion polling and private giving both show that millions of Americans understand poverty, famine and disease which create despair and instability, and they support funding programs to combat the problems. They understand that it is both our moral obligation as a world leader and in the interest of our own safety and security.

Now, although it amounts to less than 1% of the federal budget, some are demanding drastic cuts in foreign assistance.  They speak of wasted funds, ingratitude by foreign governments and people, donor fatigue, economic hardship and greater needs at home.  Many put aside the advice of former Secretaries of State from both parties, senior military leaders and experienced bipartisan voices in the Congress.   What passes for conventional wisdom in Washington predicts that cuts between 8 and 18 percent will be made to the foreign assistance budget, and that more may follow.

This is an urgent issue.  With deep cuts, fewer students from countries like Pakistan will learn in America about the strength that lies in diversity and the advantages of an open society.  Fewer community leaders in Africa, the Middle East and Asia will acquire the skills to promote ethnic, religious and cultural tolerance and treat the underlying causes of conflict.  Fewer young women in Central Asia and the Middle East will avoid forced marriages or escape becoming victims of global trafficking.  In fewer communities in former communist states will citizens learn how to solve problems themselves instead of depending on governments to act.  With cuts in funding, U.S. programs will lose out against competing efforts by governments such as China and Russia to promote their own development approaches, which will not include any emphasis on participatory democracy and open society development.

All these losses will deprive Americans of opportunities to advance the principles of rule of law, respect for human rights and progress towards healthy, stable societies with whom we share ideas, products and values.  No one questions whether official aid can do a better job; USAID and the Department of State already have made great strides in this direction while admitting more can be done.  To hobble the U.S. at the moment when we most need to be shaping the world to come, however, will hold back our country from making the world better.  Here’s my hope – joined with those of a multitude of others – that the spirit of Thanksgiving will make it through to those who must decide which way we’re going to go.


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